By Hillary Atkin
Television news directors in Los Angeles came under attack last month for their initial lack of coverage of the arson-caused Station fire, which killed two firefighters, destroyed about 80 homes and became the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County history.
The fire was already spreading out of control on Saturday, Aug. 29, the day of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral, an event that received widespread coverage. Viewers in the fire-affected areas as well as local politicians and television critics complained that L.A. stations had dropped the ball that weekend by not providing extensive fire coverage.
Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara went so far as to call it “a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout.”
Was it because of the economy? It’s common knowledge that news departments operate on the weekends with only a fraction of their Monday-through-Friday staff, but that additional personnel is called in — or simply shows up — when a big story breaks.
Not a single news executive would admit that any budgetary cutbacks affected the initial fire coverage, saying their stations provided comprehensive reporting before the fire turned deadly and threatened residents.
All the same, media watchers have been warning recently that layoffs and cuts are having an enormous impact on the quality of television news.
“The thing with journalism is we don’t know what we don’t see,” said professor Richard Hanley, graduate journalism director of the Quinnipiac University school of communications. “What’s going on is at a molecular level. There’s a more sloppy presentation. When you drain a newsroom of its experienced staffers, compounded by the stresses everyone is under to constantly feed the beast, that moment of quality control is often lost.”
This year began as a tough one economically for television stations. The temporary lift that campaign commercials provided the previous fall was history, and the auto industry ads, from which so much revenue is derived, took a nosedive, intertwined with the worst general economic downturn in decades.
With about 50 percent of a local television station’s budget coming from its news department, and an acceptable annual profit for the station in the range of 40 to 50 percent, the pressure to get ratings — which translate into advertising dollars — is greater than ever.
“Adding to that economic malaise, there is the technological-digital change, draining money to get that done in time,” said Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent who is the executive director of Newslab.org. “Meanwhile, audience declines continue, which feeds the downward cycle of income. It’s hard to believe it all happened at once.”
The amount of news on the air has dramatically increased in the past 10 years because stations could find advertisers willing to pay for the viewers they would get during newscasts, but Potter predicts that recently added or marginal news times — like weekend mornings — will be cut due to economic pressures. The 5 p.m. newscasts in several major markets have already been replaced with talk or entertainment programming.
Layoffs have largely come from the ranks of higher-paid and more experienced employees, which media analysts say means a less experienced staff with a shorter-term investment in the community.
“The era of the mid-six-figure anchors and above has come to an end. Their contracts are not being renewed if they don’t take pay cuts,” Potter said. “We’ve seen a trend of departures of people who in previous years were considered absolutely safe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed ‘veteran anchor not renewed.’ It seems to be the most prevalent headline of the year in TV newsrooms.”
“Institutional knowledge is walking out the door, and errors in judgment and mistakes of omission will happen,” Quinnipiac ‘s Hanley said. “Journalism is a craft, learned by doing under people who’ve done it for a long time. Without that mentoring within a newsroom, the probability of error will increase. When that experience leaves the newsroom that insight on how to handle sources, sticky situations and how to know a good story also walks. Losing that experience is detrimental to the organization internally, and externally to its role in society.”
With the increased importance of station Web sites bringing more demand for fresh content, news departments are expected to do more with less. In some markets, reporters who used to go out in the field with a photographer may go out alone. Producers may also be responsible for posting Web video.
“Newspeople are busier than ever with three screens to feed: television, Web and mobile,” said Potter. “Now you have to learn multiple jobs, including shooting and editing stories. In years past, you did that in small markets and thought you left that behind when you moved up.”
Yet from a station’s standpoint, it gains some flexibility with younger journalists who have multimedia skills and are more open-minded about what their jobs entail.
“The good ones have figured out people have to be trained,” Potter said. “Newsrooms can say ‘We expect this of you and we’ll teach you how to do it.’ I think that’s essential.”